Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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The Pitfalls of Political Correctness:
Euphemisms Excoriated

by Kenneth Jernigan

Kenneth JerniganFrom the Editor: Not long ago a reader wrote to take issue with an article I had written in the November 2008 issue titled, “No Such Thing as Blind Culture.” He did not so much object to the notion that blind people are actually part of the mainstream culture as express shock and anger that I had not used politically correct language when referring to what he termed “persons with blindness.” In my response I referred this reader to the article that Kenneth Jernigan wrote in the August 1993 issue of the Braille Monitor in which he explained why we do not adhere to the frequent practice of employing people-first language. In looking up the correct citation to give this reader, I was surprised to discover that the article appeared more than fifteen years ago. I also discovered that immediately following Dr. Jernigan’s article was an equally sound piece by longtime Federationist and disability scholar Ed Vaughan. It seems a good time to reprint both articles. If anything the plague of awkward circumlocutions in an effort not to shock us too quickly with the fact of our disability is even worse than it was in 1993. The Braille Monitor continues to cling to its conviction that vigorous prose is a virtue and that blind people can stand to read one of the adjectives that describe them before they arrive at the noun. Blind people we are, and we are content to be described as such. Here are the two articles:

As civilizations decline, they become increasingly concerned with form over substance, particularly with respect to language. At the time of the First World War we called it shell shock—a simple term, two one-syllable words, clear and descriptive. A generation later, after the Second World War had come and gone, we called it combat fatigue. It meant the same thing, and there were still just two words—but the two syllables had grown to four. Today the two words have doubled, and the original pair of syllables have mushroomed to eight. It even has an acronym, PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder. It still means the same thing, and it still hurts as much, but it is more in tune with current effete sensibilities.

It is also a perfect example of the pretentious euphemisms that characterize almost everything we do and say. Euphemisms and the politically correct language which they exemplify are sometimes only prissy, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes tiresome. Often, however, they are more than that. At their worst they obscure clear thinking and damage the very people and causes they claim to benefit.

The blind have had trouble with euphemisms for as long as anybody can remember, and late twentieth-century America is no exception. The form has changed (in fact, everything is very "politically correct"), but the old notions of inferiority and second-class status still remain. The euphemisms and the political correctness don't help. If anything, they make matters worse since they claim modern thought and new enlightenment. Here is a recent example from the federal government:

United States Department of Education
Washington, D.C.
May 4, 1993
TO: Office for Civil Rights Senior Staff
FROM: Jeanette J. Lim, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
SUBJECT: Language Reference to Persons with a Disability

As you know, the October 29, 1992, Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992 replaced the term "handicap" with the term "disability." This term should be used in all communications.

OCR recognizes the preference of individuals with disabilities to use phraseology that stresses the individuality of all children, youth, and adults, and then the incidence of a disability. In all our written and oral communications, care should be given to avoid expressions that many persons find offensive. Examples of phraseology to avoid and alternative suggestions are noted below.

  1. "Persons with a disability" or "individuals with disabilities" instead of "disabled person."
  2. "Persons who are deaf" or "young people with hearing impairments" instead of "deaf people."
  3. "People who are blind" or "persons with a visual impairment" instead of "blind people."
  4. "A student with dyslexia" instead of "a dyslexic student."

In addition, please avoid using phrases such as "the deaf," "the mentally retarded," or "the blind." The only exception to this policy involves instances where the outdated phraseology is contained in a quote or a title, or in legislation or regulations; it is then necessary to use the citation verbatim.

I hope this information has been helpful to you. If you have any questions about any of these favored and disfavored expressions, feel free to contact Jean Peelen, Director, Elementary and Secondary Education Policy Division, at (202) 205-8637.

That is what the memorandum says, and if it were an isolated instance, we could shrug it off and forget it. But it isn't. It is more and more the standard thinking, and anybody who objects is subject to sanction.

Well, we of the National Federation of the Blind do object, and we are doing something about it. At our recent national convention in Dallas we passed a resolution on the subject, and we plan to distribute it throughout the country and press for action on it . Here it is:

Resolution 93-01

WHEREAS, the word “blind” accurately and clearly describes the condition of being unable to see, as well as the condition of having such limited eyesight that alternative techniques are required to do efficiently the ordinary tasks of daily living that are performed visually by those having good eyesight; and

WHEREAS, there is increasing pressure in certain circles to use a variety of euphemisms in referring to blindness or blind persons―euphemisms such as “hard of seeing,” “visually challenged,” “sightless,” “visually impaired,” “people with blindness,” “people who are blind,” and the like; and

WHEREAS, a differentiation must be made among these euphemisms: some (such as “hard of seeing,” “visually challenged,” and “people with blindness”) being totally unacceptable and deserving only ridicule because of their strained and ludicrous attempt to avoid such straightforward, respectable words as “blindness,” “blind,” “the blind,” “blind person,” or “blind persons;” others (such as “visually impaired,” and “visually limited”) being undesirable when used to avoid the word “blind” and acceptable only to the extent that they are reasonably employed to distinguish between those having a certain amount of eyesight and those having none; still others (such as “sightless”) being awkward and serving no useful purpose; and still others (such as “people who are blind” or “persons who are blind”) being harmless and not objectionable when used in occasional and ordinary speech but being totally unacceptable and pernicious when used as a form of political correctness to imply that the word “person” must invariably precede the word “blind” to emphasize the fact that a blind person is first and foremost a person; and

WHEREAS, this euphemism concerning people or persons who are blind--when used in its recent trendy, politically correct form--does the exact opposite of what it purports to do since it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent; and

WHEREAS, just as an intelligent person is willing to be so designated and does not insist upon being called “a person who is intelligent” and a group of bankers are happy to be called bankers and have no concern that they be referred to as persons who are in the banking business, so it is with the blind―the only difference being that some people (blind and sighted alike) continue to cling to the outmoded notion that blindness (along with everything associated with it) connotes inferiority and lack of status; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled in the city of Dallas, Texas, this 9th day of July, 1993, that the following statement of policy be adopted:

We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms with others, and we intend to do it.
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